The last brick – RIP James M. Buchanan

Nobel Prize winning economist and founding father of the Public Choice school James M. Buchanan has died at age 93. His friends and students have already offered many kind words in his memory. Here I quote two of my friends professors Steve Horwtiz and Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard.

Here is Pete:

James M. Buchanan, RIP. If making a difference is what matters, he was one of the five most influential thinkers of the last 50 years. Sharp as a knife into his 90s and always the scholar.

And Steve:

There is much that one can say about him (Buchanan), not the least of which is that he was still intellectually sharp and active into his 90s. In short: he changed the face of economics and politics and advanced the cause of liberty as much as anyone in the second half of the 20th century…

…No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of constitutional political economy.

Beyond all of that, he was a role model of the old school scholar: widely read and properly skeptical of turning economics into an engineering discipline. He was, at bottom, a humanist and a liberal in the oldest and best senses of the terms. And best of all: he was utterly unimpressed by degrees from fancy schools.

Buchanan produced an enormous amount of scholarly works including numerous books in his long life. Best known is probably The Calculus of Consent which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock. However, the works that had the biggest influence on my own thinking undoubtedly was “What should economists do?” and “Cost and Choice”.

Even though Buchanan primarily was a constitutional economist and a Public Choice theorist he also contributed to monetary thinking. His so-called brick standard was particularly intriguing. Here is Pete Boettke and Daniel Smith on Buchanan and the brick standard:

James Buchanan, sought to bring his extensive work on rule-making to bear in envisioning a monetary regime that could operate within a contemporary democratic setting. From the start, Buchanan (1999[1962]) eschewed the ‘presuppositions of Harvey road’ that held that economic policy would be crafted and implemented by a group of benevolent and enlightened elites. Buchanan set out to make the case for a monetary regime using comparative institutional analysis that compared monetary regimes in real, not ideal settings.

Buchanan (1999[1962]) believed that it was not so much the specific type of monetary regime adopted, but the set of rules that defined that regime. Buchanan argued that the brick standard, a labor standard, or a manager confined by well-defined rules, would all put a stop to the government growth let loose by the fiscal profligacy encouraged by the wide scale acceptance of Keynesian ideas in the political realm (see Buchanan and Wagner (2000[1977]). The brick standard, as defined by Buchanan, would be a monetary regime that allowed anyone to go to the mint with a standard building brick of a specified quality and exchange it for the monetary unit, and vice versa. As the general price level fluctuated, market forces would cause automatic adjustments as people would exchange money for bricks when the price level rose above the equilibrium level, and bricks for money when the price level fell below the equilibrium level. Under this regime, market actors, guided by profits and losses would be the mechanism that achieved price predictability, not a government-entity entrusted with the goal of achieving it. In addition, a brick standard would, most likely, divorce domestic monetary policy from international balance of payment and exchange rate policies due to the fact that a brick standard would be unsuitable for those purposes.

For Buchanan (1999[1962], 417), it came down to a toss-up between a brick type standard and a limited manager. What mattered most for monetary predictability was that the rules that set up the monetary regime must be of the ‘constitutional’ variety. In other words, the rules must be set to be ‘relatively absolute absolutes’ in order to protect them from tampering.

R.I.P. James M. Buchanan


Update – other economists and scholars on James Buchanan:

Steve Horwitz

Daniel Kuehn

Eamonn Butler

Don Boudreaux (also from Don in 2005 and Don in WSJ)

Mark D. White

Grover Cleveland

Mario Rizzo

David Boaz

Robert Higgs

David Henderson

Alex Tabarrok

Randall Holcombe

Peter Boettke

Ryan Young

Bill Woolsey

Veronique de Rugy

Nick Gillespie

Arnold Kling

Brad DeLong

Christian Bjørnskov (in Danish)

Tyler Cowen (more from Tyler Cowen)

Lenore Ealy

Garett Jones

Charles Rowley

Edward Lopez

The Economist: Free Exchange


Leave a comment


  1. Becky Hargrove

     /  January 9, 2013

    I agree with Don Boudreaux in his 2005 post – Buchanan’s words get to the heart of what is most important. Clearly, reading Buchanan’s work is the best New Year’s resolution I could make.

  2. John S

     /  January 10, 2013

    “Brad DeLong January 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Is this comment at Marginal Revolution real?

  3. Benjamin Cole

     /  January 11, 2013

    James Buchanan might have thought about how pubic central bank staffs, on fixed salaries would come to contend that deflation, or zero inflation, was the best monetary policy.

    It is in the economic interest of people on fixed salaries to proclaim the superior virtues of zero inflation or deflation—actually, to target deflation, while talking about low inflation.

    Imagine a guy at the bank of japan, risen up through the ranks, and getting effective pay raises as Japan goes through deflation.

    Indeed, central bank staffs would be fine with perma-recessions, as their salaries are safe. They can buy bigger houses, etc.

  1. Free Banking » James Buchanan, RIP
  2. James Buchanan, Appreciations
  3. James Buchanan, RIP - Alt-M

Leave a Reply to John SCancel reply